Live subtitling for Elvis? It sounds like the punchline to a joke. But it’s actually an assignment I undertook for Manchester Arena this year, and the preparation and the technical set-up raised some interesting challenges.
The show was Elvis in Concert: Live on Tour with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and a deaf customer who already had tickets for the show had asked for live subtitles. Having covered a similar event last year (Monty Python: Live at the O2) for an individual deaf client, I suggested being seated in the disabled area, provided with power, table and chair and an Assisted Listening Device unit. The deaf client was keen to stay in his already booked seat, which was very close to the stage, so it was clear that a solution capable of transmitting over distance would be required. His seat was in block B, and I was in the disabled area in block 108.
My preferred solution, and what we used on the night, was Text on Top to a handheld Windows tablet, which uses radio waves to communicate between the reporter’s laptop and the client’s tablet. The client used a desk stand on his lap for the first half, and during the second half used a suction device on the back of the tablet which made it easier to hold. He was keen to have the tablet attached to the seat in front, however I didn’t have a gadget that would do this, and it would be hard to do in a way that wouldn’t impact on the person sitting in front. It is a common problem with handheld units providing captioning that users are then required to look between the unit and the stage, with very different focal points, which can be uncomfortable.
As back-up, I also took with me: a router, to provide Bridge over a LAN to either the Windows tablet or a netbook; a Stenocast set, to provide Bridge to a netbook; and the team were able to give me access to the staff Wi-fi, if I had needed it, to provide Streamtext. Luckily none of these were required but better safe than sorry!
In terms of preparation, I knew I was on my own as the venue had made it clear they wouldn’t be able to get anything from the production company before the night. I bought the two CDs that had been released by Elvis and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and put all the song names in with one-stroke short forms, as well as all the composers (although in the end I didn’t use any of their names!) I searched online for lyrics, and made a separate Text on Top Script file for each song. I listened to the CDs to check that the lyrics online were complete and correct, and added in verses/changed typos where necessary.
There were two shows in the week before my assignment at different venues, and I checked reviews online to get information about the running order. The reviews confirmed that Priscilla Presley spoke on stage, and the review of the Leeds show gave a running order of the songs, adding in a few that weren’t on the CD, so I got the lyrics from the internet and made new Script files for them on the day.
I arrived at the venue around 4pm on the day of the show, and was well looked after by Tim Chambers and his team. I set up in the disabled area in block 108, with power and a table and chair, and access to the Assisted Listening Device, which turned out to be a loop tester which had to be strung up above my head to get a clear signal! The team helped me test the Text on Top unit by sitting in block B and watching the feed on the unit.
As show time approached, John the deaf client came to meet me and collect the tablet. Text on Top Vision doesn’t need any instructions on the client side, but I explained how the system worked and how to make the text larger and smaller, or change the colour. I also explained that I would swap the tablet for a fresh one at the break, so the battery didn’t run out mid-show. His partner interpreted into sign language, but I made sure I applied deaf awareness principles by speaking clearly and facing him at all times so he could read my lips, however the venue was quite dark so it wasn’t ideal circumstances. I also had a pen and paper ready so I could have written down instructions if necessary.
Once the show started, I was busy outputting lyrics and writing live when Priscilla came on (four times in total). I had put the Text on Top Scripts list into alphabetical order so I could find each song when the intro started. However there were some songs played that I hadn’t prepared for, and famously lyrics are hard to decipher when listening to them, so I would listen for a phrase and then type it into Google on my phone, followed by “lyrics” or “Elvis” if it didn’t respond straight away, and then steno in the lyrics whilst reading them from my phone. Although this took a few valuable seconds at the beginning of a new song, it meant I could be more accurate throughout the song so I thought it was worthwhile.
The atmosphere at the show was amazing, the audience around me were singing and dancing along with the songs. When I was outputting lyrics line-by-line from the scripts it was easy to sway along a bit too, but during Priscilla’s appearances I really had to concentrate and make sure the noise-cancelling function on my headphones was on!
During the interval I swapped tablets with the deaf client and made sure he was happy with the feed, he was really enjoying the show which meant it was all worthwhile.
What would I do differently in the future? I would try and provide more options for the provision of the tablet – maybe a floor stand or these tab-legs as well as what we used on the night. Also I would have pushed the venue a bit harder to get a set list from the production company – clearly everything was very well planned out and it would have enabled me to get every song inputted in script format. This wouldn’t necessarily be true at every gig though although I imagine most artists would have a long-list of songs that you could prepare.
All in all it was a great experience for me and John the deaf client, and I hope to take on similar opportunities in the future.
Claire started her steno training at Smith Bernal (now DTI Global) in 1994, started working in court in 1995 and attained Accredited LiveNote Reporter status in 1996.
Since becoming freelance in 2004, she has broadened her competences to include all the areas where verbatim realtime reporting can be used.